The Heretic Queen Q&A

Q: What inspired you to write about ancient Egypt?

My love-affair with Egyptology began on an archaeological dig in Israel. While our team was working to unearth an ancient city used as a trading post between the Hebrews and Egyptians, we came across a handful of scarabs dating back to the reign of Cleopatra, proof that the Egyptians had traveled north selling cloth and incense and statues of Osiris. Looking at the mysterious lapis stones in the dirt, untouched for who knew how many years and embellished with roughhewn hieroglyphics, I was hooked. It wasn’t long before I found myself wandering through Egyptian exhibits in Los Angeles, London and finally Berlin. It was in Berlin that the inspiration came for writing my debut novel, Nefertiti.

Q: What inspired you to write on Nefertari?

In many ways, The Heretic Queen is a natural progression from my debut novel Nefertiti. The sequel picks up the plot after the brief interceding reign of Tutankhamun. The narrator is orphaned Nefertari, who suffers terribly because of her relationship to the reviled “Heretic Queen”. Despite the Heretic Queen’s death a generation prior, Nefertari is still tainted by her relationship to her aunt, Queen Nefertiti, and when young Ramesses falls in love and wishes to marry her, it is a struggle not just against an angry court, but against the wishes of a rebellious people.

But perhaps I would never have chosen to write on Nefertari at all if I hadn’t taken a trip to Egypt and seen her magnificent tomb. At one time, visiting her tomb was practically free, but today, a trip underground to see one of the most magnificent places on earth can cost upwards of five thousand dollars (yes, you read that right). If you want to share the cost and go with a group, the cost lowers to the bargain-basement price of about three thousand. As a guide told us of the phenomenal price, I looked at my friend, and he looked at me. We had flown more than seven thousand miles, suffered the indignities of having to wear the same clothes for three days because of lost luggage… and really, what were the possibilities of our ever returning to Egypt again? There was only one choice. We paid the outrageous price, and I have never forgotten the experience.

While breathing in some of the most expensive air in the world, I saw a tomb that wasn’t just fit for a queen, but a goddess. In fact, Nefertari was only one of two (possibly three) queens ever deified in her lifetime, and as I gazed at the vibrant images on her tomb – jackals and bulls, cobras and gods – I knew that this wasn’t just any woman, but a woman who had been loved fiercely when she was alive. Because I am a sucker for romances, particularly if those romances actually happened, I immediately wanted to know more about Nefertari and Ramesses the Great. So my next stop was the Hall of Mummies at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. There, resting beneath a heavy arc of glass, was the great Pharaoh himself. For a ninety-something year old man, he didn’t look too bad. His short red hair was combed back neatly and his face seemed strangely peaceful in its three thousand year repose. I tried to imagine him as he’d been when he was young – strong, athletic, frighteningly rash and incredibly romantic. Buildings and poetry remain today as testaments to Ramesses’s softer side, and in one of Ramesses’s more famous poems he calls Nefertari “the one for whom the sun shines.” His poetry to her can be found from Luxor to Abu Simbel, and it was my visit to Abu Simbel (where Ramesses built a temple for Nefertari) where I finally decided that I had to tell their story.

Q: In The Heretic Queen, Ramesses has red hair. Is that accurate?

Yes. When his mummy was recovered in 1881, Egyptologists were able to determine that he had once stood five feet seven inches tall, had flaming red hair, and a distinctive nose that his sons would also inherit. Although some have contended that his mummy had red hair because of burial dyes or henna, French anthropologists laid these theories to rest after a DNA test conclusively proved he was a red-head (contrary nearly all media portrayals).

Q: Did Ramesses really write the world’s first peace treaty?

Yes. At least, it is the earliest copy of a treaty which has ever been found. When archaeologists discovered the treaty it was written in both Egyptian and Akkadian. The clay tablet details the terms of peace, extradition policy and mutual-aid clauses between Ramesses’s kingdom of Egypt and the powerful kingdom of Hatti. Today, a copy of the original treaty, written in cuneiform and discovered in Hattusas, is displayed in the United Nations building in New York to serve as a reminder of the rewards of diplomacy.

Q: Was Ramesses really as rash as he was portrayed in the book, taking his wives with him to war and nearly losing his kingdom in the famous Battle of Kadesh?

Given the evidence from his own temple walls and various Hittite sources, the answer seems to be yes.. Although Ramesses is remembered as a great warrior and prolific builder, his most famous battle—the Battle of Kadesh—ended not in victory, but in a truce. In images from his temple in Abu Simbel, he can be seen racing into this war on his chariot, his horse’s reins tied around his waist as he smites the Hittites in what he depicted as a glorious triumph. Nefertari is believed to have accompanied him into this famous battle, where Ramesses’s rashness nearly lost him the entire kingdom of Egypt and changed the course of history.

Q: You write about princess Nefertari being the daughter of Mutnodjmet, and thus the niece of Queen Nefertiti. Is this possible?

Historically, it is unknown exactly how Nefertari was related to Nefertiti. But in order for Nefertari to have been the daughter of Mutnodjmet, Horemheb’s time as Pharaoh would had to have been much shorter than the twenty-seven years. Still, I felt comfortable shortening Horemheb’s reign given that his rule was recorded as an improbable fifty-nine years. After destroying Nefertiti’s city of Amarna and usurping Ay’s mortuary temple at Medinet Habu, Horemheb erased Nefertiti and her family from the walls of Egypt, then added their years of rule onto his own. The Egyptian historian Manetho records Horemheb’s real reign as being only a few short years. If this was the case, then Nefertari could indeed have been the daughter of Mutnodjmet. In her tomb, objects were discovered which would link her to Nefertiti and Mutnodjmet. Some of these objects include a pair ushabti figurines and the knob of a cane with a cartouche of Pharaoh Ay (Mutnodjmet’s father, and possibly Nefertari’s grandfather).

Q: In the book, Ramesses performs some truly unbelievable feats, such as fighting off the Sherden pirates and surviving a Hittite ambush with the help of a mysterious tribe of Ne’arin. Did these things really happen?

Yes, incredibly enough. Ramesses really did fight the Sherden pirates, who were raiding the coasts of Lower Egypt and stealing from Egyptian ships. As for the Hittite ambush, this was only revealed when Ramesses captured two Shasu spies near his camp. There’s a depiction of this capture in Ramesses’s tomb, since it saved his life and very likely his kingdom. The subsequent battle which took place— the famous Battle of Kadesh— only turned in Ramesses’s favor when the Ne’arin came to his aid. It is unknown who these Ne’arin were, although there are several theories, and I chose one that made the most sense in the novel.

Q: Did the Trojan War take place during the time of Ramesses’s reign, and if so, could Trojan soldiers really have been the Sherden pirates?

Although a few historians will disagree, the Trojan War is believed to have taken place in Egypt’s 19th Dynasty. Greek archaeologists recently unearthed an ancient palace associated with Ajax the Great, a legendary king who participated in the Trojan War according to Homer. Among the discoveries at the ancient site was piece of armor stamped with the royal mark of Ramesses II. This lends strong credence to those who believe that Ramesses and the participants of the Trojan War were contemporaries, and there is a distinct possibility that the Sherden were really soldiers left over from this war who were making their living from piracy.

Q: Everyone knows the Biblical story of Moses leading the Hebrews from Egypt. So why did you change his name to Ahmoses and the Hebrews to Habiru in the novel?

Readers looking for the Biblical Moses within this story will be disappointed. Outside of the Old Testament, there is no archaeological evidence that supports Ahmoses’s existence in Egypt. What is known for certain is that a group of people called the Habiru existed in Egypt at that time, although whether they were related to the Hebrews of the Bible has never been proven. With such scant historical evidence, and given that I was attempting to portray events as they theoretically could have been, I chose to create the character of Ahmoses. I mention in the novel the myth of Sargon, in which a high priestess places her forbidden child in a basket, then leaves him on the river to be discovered by a water-bearer to the king. This myth predates the Biblical Moses by a thousand years, just as Hammurabi’s Code, a set of laws supposedly given to the Babylonian king by the sun god Shamash on the top of a mountain, predates Moses by half a millennium. I wanted these myths to be a part of the novel because the Egyptians would have been familiar with them, just as the Babylonians would have been familiar with Egypt’s most important legends.

Q: After Nefertiti’s death, Egypt was ruled by the Pharaohs Tutankhamun, Ay, Horemheb, and Ramesses I. Why did you skip these Pharaohs in order to write about Ramesses the Great?

When my publishing house purchased Nefertiti, they did so in a two-book deal. Not knowing how Nefertiti would be received, or whether I have ever get another chance at writing about ancient Egypt, I chose to tell the two most compelling stories I knew: that of Nefertiti and her sister Mutnodjmet, and that of Mutnodjmet’s child Nefertari and her life with Ramesses the Great. It may sound strange that I chose to skip over a pharaoh as well known as Tutankhamun, but the truth is that he had a very short reign. After marrying his half-sister Ankhesenamun, he ruled until he was nineteen years old and then died of a broken leg (probably infection, and possibly a chariot accident). After Tut’s death, his grandfather Ay took the throne for a few short years, followed by the general Horemheb.

I certainly could have written an entire book on Horemheb’s reign, beginning with his marriage to Mutnodjmet, but I like my stories to have some glimmer of hope, some element of romance (there were plenty of romances in history!), and Mutnodjmet’s forced marriage and death in childbirth (unlike many Amarna mummies, hers has been recovered) didn’t seem very cheerful to me. So I chose to focus on her daughter, Nefertari. Of course, it’s unknown if Nefertari really was her daughter, and if not, how exactly they were related. But the historian Manetho provided me with the possibility, and so I took it and wrote what I think is a much more hopeful story. Even though Nefertari would have been the niece of the Heretic Queen Nefertiti, and therefore tainted at court, Ramesses loved her fiercely. Buildings and poetry remain today as testaments to this, and in one of Ramesses’s more famous poems he calls Nefertari “the one for whom the sun shines.”His poetry to her can be found from Luxor to Abu Simbel.

Q: In the novel, you write about things such as cradles and folding stools. Is this accurate?

Yes. If the world of the ancient Egyptians seems shockingly contemporary in some ways, that’s because they used a variety of things most of us would consider quite modern: cradles, beds, linens, perfume, face cream and stools which folded to save space. And although the invention that Penre discovers in Meryra’s tomb seems unlikely, it is the first recorded instance of a shaduf anywhere in Egypt.

Q: Did Iset really exist?

She did. And although her real name was Isetnofret, I shortened it— along with many others— in order to keep the names in the book more manageable. For example, Luxor and Thebes are both modern appellations, but are far more recognizable than their ancient names of Ipet resyt and Waset. And I think everyone can agree that Amunher is much more pleasant to pronounce than Amunhirkhepeshef.

Q: What about the other characters?

The characters of Pharaoh Seti, Queen Tuya, Rahotep, Paser, Merit, Asha and many others are all based on historical personages, and to them I tried to remain faithful. Remaining faithful means looking at the evidence of their lives – from places like tombs, temples, and poetry – and attempting to recreate their personalities based on these records. Of course, this is extremely difficult, but not impossible. There is abundant evidence that Ramesses and Nefertari were a love match (poetry, temples), that he was rash (the Battle of Kadesh, etc), and that she was extremely well educated (letters between her and the Hittite Queen). Yet a wealth of evidence does not exist for every character, so I took much greater liberties with some personalities than others. For example, even though the novel depicts Iset as a disloyal princess, it is impossible to know who she really was in life, and the same goes for Rahotep.

Q: Whatever happened to Nefertari? Did her children rule after she and Ramesses died?

When Nefertari died, she was buried in QV66 in the Valley of the Queens, and her tomb is the largest and most spectacular of any ever found in the necropolis. On a wall of her burial chamber, Ramesses summed up his love for her as such: “My love is unique and no one can rival her… Just by passing, she has stolen away my heart.” She bore Ramesses at least six children, yet none of them lived long enough to become Pharaoh after him. In fact, it was Iset’s son Merenptah who succeeded Ramesses to the throne.

Q: Ramesses was known as a prolific builder. Which buildings is he responsible for that can still be seen today?

It is believed that Ramesses is the Pharaoh responsible for some of the most visited sites in Egypt: Nefertari’s tomb, the Ramesseum, much of Pi-Ramesses, Luxor, the Hypostyle Hall at Karnak, and the stunning mortuary temples in Nubia (or modern-day Abu Simbel).

Q: What type of dog is Queen Tuya’s iwiw Adjo?

Several types of dogs existed in Egypt, and Adjo would most likely have been a greyhound. Images of dogs that bear a striking resemblance to modern-day greyhounds have been found all across Egypt.

Q: I’m a little cofused. Your novel Nefertiti begins in 1351 and ends in 1335 when Mutny is about thirty years old. The Heretic Queen begins in 1285 with Nefertari as Mutny’s thirteen year-old child. That’s a gap of fifty-five years! How is this possible?

When I first sold Nefertiti, I did so in a two-book deal with the intention of writing my second book on Tutankhamun. When Nefertiti was published, dates and all, I was still certain I would be writing about Tut’s reign. However, when I realized that my third book would be Cleopatra’s Daughter and not another book on ancient Egypt, I wanted to tell not Tut’s story, but the more fascinating one of Nefertari and Ramesses (since I would have only one more chance to write about ancient Egypt for a while).

Because Ramesses is such a well-known Pharaoh, and because Hittite sources exist confirming when he reigned, I was unable to change his dates of rule for The Heretic Queen. Yet my publishing house wanted a sequel, and the only way to do that was to link Nefertari with Mutny. Historically, there is virtually no chance that Nefertari was Mutnodjmet’s daughter. However, it is far more likely (and there is some proof of this) that she was Mutnodjmet’s granddaughter. Making her Mutny’s daughter was literary license. While I could have made her Mutny’s granddaughter (this would have been more historically accurate), I thought it would be difficult for some readers to believe that the stigma of heresy would have remained so strong after two generations. Artistically, it worked as well, since I could have Nefertari searching for a past readers would be intimately familiar with from my previous book, versus a mother readers wouldn’t know.

The explanation of the dates in my Historical Note was intended to point all of this out to the reader in as few words as possible. I couldn’t include this entire backstory and so I hoped my short explanation would suffice. I do plan to make this a lot clearer in the paperback version.

Q: So why did you write in your Historical Note that it was possible for Nefertari to be Mutny’s daughter?

Because theoretically, it is, if you use Manetho’s timeline (nine years for Pharaoh Tut, four years for Pharaoh Ay, a few years for Pharaoh Horemheb, two years for Pharaoh Ramesses I, and six years for Pharaoh Seti, which is when the novel begins). However, it’s not all posible given the dates I used in my books. Frankly, this is a case of being unable to change the dates because I never realized this would be a sequel. Had I realized that before writing Nefertiti, I would have stuck with Mentho’s theory and adjusted those dates accordingly.

Q: In the novel, Nefertari loses her virginity to Ramesses before they marry. Wasn’t it important for a woman to be a virgin before marriage to a Pharaoh?

No, virginity wasn’t necessary for marriage in ancient Egypt. In fact, if Nefertari had lost her virginity to someone else, she would still have been considered a suitable wife for Ramesses. Sometimes Pharaohs even took women who already had children. Quite a few things were reversed in ancient Egypt. As the ancient historian Herodutus wrote (admittedly many years after Nefertari):

The Egyptians appear to have reversed the ordinary practices of mankind. Women attend markets and are employed in trade, while men stay at home and do the weaving! Men in Egypt carry loads on their head, women on their shoulder. Women pass water standing up, men sitting down. To ease themselves, they go indoors, but eat outside on the streets, on the theory that what is unseemly, but necessary, should be done in private, and what is not unseemly should be done openly.
(Herodotus II: 33-37)

More questions will be added as readers ask!